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An egalitarian way forward in education

Written By Ed Freeman

I may describe adolescence for me as a time of intellectual rebellion. I learnt almost only what I wanted and late, half-hearted homeworks featured highly. As did sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher, sapped of enthusiasm, dribbling out a dull diatribe, for the 10th time, on an exercise in the chemistry syllabus. Secondary school, for me, felt tedious.

Stephen Fry tells a different story. In an episode of QI, he described the chemistry master walking into the classroom clasping a rose, proceeding to dip it into a tank of liquid nitrogen for only a second and smash it onto a surface “into a thousand pieces”. Stephen’s story does not speak to me of drained enthusiasm and formulaic curricula. To me it seems like a teacher finding a unique and creative way to inspire curiosity in his students. I’m not suggesting smashing pretty things is the way forward in education. But modern state education, with its drab criteria and lists of tick boxes, is entirely devoid of any excitement, individualism, and enthusiasm.

A private education does, however, come both with its blessing and its curses. To me, private schools are orphanages decorated with Baroque ornaments and Latin mottos. Prisons with pearly gates to which parents sanctimoniously send their children and claim to be gifting them with the finest education money can buy. In doing so, they absolve themselves of parental duties, allowing them to focus more intently on their important business ventures. Or whatever it is they do to fill their pockets. Unfortunately, I believe all this does is create an enclosed, claustrophobic environment in which prejudices can arise and fester, maintaining out-dated notions of elitism and class structures. Structures which those private schools maintain generation after generation, as parents who went to those institutions are more likely to get high paid jobs and subsequently send their children to those same institutions. In essence, the effect is to uphold an even wider enclosed system: a wealthy class in which prejudices maintain and impress upon the so-called “hoi polloi”.

One such prejudice is that of an obsession with the notion of social ‘elitism’. The word ‘elite’ has taken on a new meaning at the hands of private schools and first-class universities. It used to be the word meant simply ‘the best’. But the eagerness of universities like Oxford and Cambridge to admit students who are afforded the benefit of expert advice and preparation attests otherwise. A report from the Sutton Trust in 2018 credited this as a large part of the reason why six private schools and two sixth- form colleges accounted for more Oxbridge offers than 3000 state schools between the years of 2015 and 2017. Many in the comprehensive system aren’t afforded such intimate intellectual nurturing.

Certain colleges, such as Mansfield, which shot up the Norrington table from last place to fifth between the years of 2007 and 2020, try to overlook this bias in their selection process. This ascension was accompanied by an increase in admittance from state schools to 90% in 2020, showing that outreach and inclusivity can lead to the acquisition of a thriving student body: a true elite.

This problem, however, isn’t only exasperated by the ‘elitism’ of first-class universities. Rather than encourage students with potential to realise their ambitions, state schools seem to be riddled with pessimism, only willing to encourage those they deem “worthy” of ambition. Ironically, they seem to me to be riven by the prejudices of the upper-classes, insisting that only those in the academic “first- class” should have any academic dreams. One friend of mine, for example, was told in school that they weren’t the “calibre of student” who could get into Cambridge despite being incredibly well- read, intelligent, intellectually curious and driven to try. Both private and comprehensive school systems seem to fall apart due to a prejudice against the majority: a common situation in which two opposite poles meet in the middle.

The modern education system of Britain needs revision. The old-fashioned beauty of individualism and intellectual freedom for teachers should feature more prominently and the archaic system of imprisonment through education should be abolished. This way we can achieve a population more inspired to learn and less socially divided. We take a step closer towards egalitarianism.

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